Letter to Prisoners.

 

Letter to Prisoners. 1

The Communion of the Saints.. 1

Hieromartyr Lucian of Antioch.. 1

Longinus the Centurion, who stood at the cross. 2

Holy Prophet Hosea.. 2

The Sermon on the Mount. 3

The Beatitudes. 4

 

[Note: The prisoners (in the Texas state prison system) that I see weekly are reading the Gospels together. I have asked them to comment upon what they read, or ask questions, and  I promised to send them simple commentaries. These small offerings, which are usually part of a letter sent to them, are not meant to be a scholarly exegesis, or comprehensive.  We must read the Gospels daily, and simply, and be like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, desiring to be taught something edifying for our soul. If a person does not feel something stirring in their soul when they read the Gospels, they are missing the illumination God desires to give them. Everyone is invited to send their feelings about the Gospels to me. Perhaps we can educate each other in some way.

Priest Seraphim Holland seraphim@orthodox.net]

 

Oct 17/30 Holy Prophet Hosea To my dear brothers in Christ:

 

A funny thing happened on the way to the end of my week: I did not go to prison because it was a "5th Wednesday", but I still did not have the time to write a letter until near the end of the week. Today is Thursday, and I am as tired as usual, despite getting more sleep than usual, since I did not get up at 3am on Wed. There truly is no rest for the wicked. I am trying real hard to keep up a pace of writing weekly, and I guess this week, I will keep my modest streak alive.

Next week, at Michael, I will serve liturgy. I hope you are ready to sing the hymn for our patron, Patriarch Joseph the All-Comely.  The following week, I will serve liturgy at Hughes. I have no travel in the immediate future, so Nov should be a two visit month for each unit. Please write back to me if you can.

I hope to talk about at least a little of Matthew 5 today. It is starting to get very interesting. Perhaps this chapter should have several letters dedicated to it.

There were some wonderful Saints celebrated this week. Since you do not have ready access to a Synaxarion (a collection of lives of the Saints, arranged by date of commemoration), I will sometimes take some time to tell you about a few of the saints.

The Communion of the Saints.

A large "missing page" in the Christianity of  many outside the Orthodox church is our intimacy with the saints. They are not dead, since God is the God of the living and not the dead, and our daily experience with the resurrection teaches us that it is impossible that the saints, who have fought the good fight, and finished the course, would not be alive and aware and with God. We also have thousands of experiences with the Saints - appearances and such - that have been written down and are part of our consciousness. We are not alone in our fight in this big bad world, and we have examples and mentors for every situation we will encounter.

 

Hieromartyr Lucian of Antioch

On Tuesday, Oct 15/28, we celebrated the Hieromartyr Lucian (he was a monk and a priest and a martyr = hieromartyr). He witnessed (the word martyr means witness, and there is no greater witness than laying down one's life for his friends, and our Lord called us friends) in the 4th century, during a persecution by the pagan emperor, Diocletian. He was born in Syria, and had a school of biblical studies in Antioch before his arrest. He endured 9 (NINE!) years of intermittent torture and starvation in prison before he was killed. In prison, he encouraged his fellow prisoners, and upon approaching his end, which he knew by revelation by God, he desired to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. There are four things needed to celebrate liturgy: a priest, bread, wine, and an antimins. We have from earliest times celebrated the liturgy on the bones and relics of the martyrs, and the antimins is a cloth with the relics (bone, hair, etc) of one or more martyrs sewn into it. In our antimins, there is a little pocket  on the bottom, which is sewed shut. Obviously, there were no relics available, so St Lucian celebrated the liturgy, chained to a box, using his chest as an altar. No doubt he sang the liturgy from memory, and became a living antimins. After his death, he was thrown into the sea, and a month later, dolphins carried his body to shore, and Christians found it and buried him with honor. Here is his troparion (a hymn which we sing which more or less summarizes the life of a saint, or an event like the Nativity, etc).

Troparion    Tone 3 Radiant with the Spirit/ thou didst teach true knowledge and manifest the Faith;/ a trainer of martyrs, O Lucian,/ thou wast glorious in contest./ Intercede with Christ our God to grant us His great mercy

Longinus the Centurion, who stood at the cross

This past Wednesday, Oct 16/29, we remembered St Longinus. He was a centurion, and part of the guard detail that  kept watch on Christ at the cross and at the tomb.  He was the one of whom it was said: "The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.  (32)  Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.  (33)  But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs:  (34)  But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water." (John 19:31-34)

 

What Longinus did was standard procedure. He was assuring that Jesus was dead, and thrust his spear into his heart. The blood and water spilled onto his eyes, and healed an eye ailment. This was the first miracle that began to change Longinus' heart into that of a Christian. The second was the events that occurred at the death of Jesus: "Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.  (51)  And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;  (52)  And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,  (53)  And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.  (54)  Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God." (Mat 27:50-54)

 

At the resurrection Longinus ran in fear, with the other soldiers. The scripture tells us of their encounter with the ruling elite Jews: "Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.  (12)  And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,  (13)  Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.  (14)  And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.  (15)  So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day." (Mat 28:11-15)

 

Longinus and two of his comrades did not take the bribe. "Having believed in the Savior, the soldiers accepted Baptism from the apostles and decided to forsake military service. Longinus quit Judea and set out preaching about Christ Jesus the Son of God in his native land, in Cappadocia. His two comrades also followed after him. The fiery words of actual participants of the great occurrences in Judea swayed the hearts and minds of the Cappadocians; Christianity began quickly to spread about in the city and the surrounding villages. Having learned of this, the Jewish elders persuaded Pilate to dispatch a company of soldiers to Cappadocia, to kill Longinus and his comrades. The dispatched company of soldiers arrived in the native village of Longinus; the former centurion himself came out to meet the soldiers and took them to his home. After a meal, the soldiers told about the purpose of their arrival, not knowing -- that the master of the house -- was that very selfsame man, whom they were seeking. Then Longinus and his fellows identified themselves and asked the surprised soldiers, unperturbedly, to do their duty of military service. The soldiers wanted to set free the saints and advised them to flee, but the saints refused to do this, shewing firmness of will to accept suffering for Christ. The holy martyrs were beheaded, and their bodies were buried there where the saints made their final witness, and the cut-off heads were sent on to Pilate. Pilate gave orders to cast the martyrs on the trash-heap outside the city walls. After a certain while a certain blind woman arrived in Jerusalem to pray at the holy places. Saint Longinus appeared to her in a dream and said, that she should find his head and bury it. They led the blind woman to the rubbish heap. Having touched the head of the martyr, the woman was granted sight to her eyes. She reverently conveyed the venerable head to Cappadocia and there gave it burial."[1]

Let us marvel at what true faith in Christ can do to a man! It can make him fearless in the face of death, and full of fiery zeal to spread the faith, and hospitality, even to those who wish him harm. The reason the church spread to the whole world is because hearts were changed so completely that men, women and children were unafraid to live the Christian life. We therefore say and believe that "the church is built on the blood of the martyrs".

Holy Prophet Hosea

We also celebrated the Holy Prophet Hosea this Thursday, Oct 17/30. He wrote the prophetic Old Testament book, appropriately enough "Hosea". He is one of the few prophets to die of natural causes! His book is not long, and is full of allegory. It is hard to understand, but there are some parts that jump off the page. I though I would share a few with you. You should devote most of your time to reading the Gospels, Psalms and Epistles (in that order), but it is good to read and understand the Old Testament also.

"The Holy Prophet Hosea was descended from the tribe of Issachar. He lived during the IX Century before the Birth of Christ, and he lived in the Israelite kingdom. He was a contemporary of the holy Prophets Isaiah, Micah (Mikhei) and Amos. During this time many of his fellow Israelites, having forgotten the True God, worshipped idols. The holy Prophet Hosea by his wise guidances attempted to turn them again to the ancient piety. Denouncing the iniquities of the people of Israel [i.e. the northern kingdom Israel], the prophet proclaimed to them great misfortunes from a foreign people and their removal into captivity by Assyria."[2]

Hosea spoke also about Christ, that He would return from out of Egypt (Hos. 11: 1; compare Mt. 2: 15),

Early in the morning were they cast off, the king of Israel has been cast off: for Israel is a child, and I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called his children. (Hosea 11:1)

Mat 2:14-15  When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:  (15)  And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

He also prophesied that Christ would be resurrected after three days:  (Hos. 6 and especially Hos. 6: 2; compare with 1 Cor. 15: 4 which refers to the "scriptures", that is the prophesy of Hosea)

In their affliction they will seek me early, saying, Let us go, and return to the Lord our God; for he has torn, and will heal us;  (2)  he will smite, and bind us up.  (3)  After two days he will heal us: in the third day we shall arise, and live before him, and shall know him:  (4)  let us follow on to know the Lord: we shall find him ready as the morning, and he will come to us as the early and latter rain to the earth. (Hosea 6:1-4 )

1Co 15:3-4  For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;  (4)  And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures

Hosea also prophesied that Jesus would conquer death, and gave us that marvelous piece of poetry that we say so often during Pascha: (Hos. 13-14, especially Hos. 13: 14; compare 1 Cor. 15: 54-55). The "king" in the prophesy is Jesus Christ.

O Israel, who will aid thee in thy destruction?  (10)  Where is this thy king? let him even save thee in all thy cities: let him judge thee, of whom thou saidst, Give me a king and a prince.  (11)  And I gave thee a king in mine anger, and kept him back in my wrath.  (12)  Ephraim has framed a conspiracy of unrighteousness, his sin is hidden.  (13)  Pains as of a woman in travail shall come upon him: he is thy wise son, because he shall not stay in the destruction of thy children.  (14)  I will deliver them out of the power of Hades, and will redeem them from death: where is thy penalty, O death? O Hades, where is thy sting? (Hosea 13:9-14)

St Paul quotes Hosea: "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.  (51)  Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,  (52)  In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  (53)  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  (54)  So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  (55)  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1Co 15:50-56) 

The last word on Hosea is the following. Remember that everything we believe has a MORAL implication:

"Who is wise, and will understand these things? or prudent, and will know them? for the ways of the Lord are straight, and the righteous shall walk in them: but the ungodly shall fall therein." (Hosea 14:10)

Can I have an "Amen!"?

The Sermon on the Mount

 

The sermon on the Mount is the fulfillment of the law. The Law of Moses was strict, but only regarding external things. Jesus applies the law to the heart, and shows us that all of life or death is lived in the heart. Christianity is not about external compliance, but internal change. That is one of the basic meanings of the sermon on the mount, especially Jesus' teaching about lust, anger, etc. In one sense, the law of Moses was a type for the Law of Christ, which clarified what the law of God really is. It all boils down to the fulfillment of the two greatest commandments. This begins internally  in the heart.

Mat 5:1-2  "And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:  (2)  And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,"

The sermon on the Mount was to the disciples only. They were up a mountain, away from the crowds. I think that the "crowds" are not interested in spiritual things. There are many crowds, of various levels of piety. We should strive to be in the smallest crowd, close to the Savior. there are so many things we do not know yet, because we are not spiritual. We should want to be spiritual , and struggle to be so, so we can sit at Jesus' feet and learn. Only a few can sit at His feet. May God help us to struggle in extraordinary ways!

The Beatitudes

The sermon on the Mount begins with the "beatitudes" (so called because "beatitude" means supreme blessedness, and each of the beatitudes begins with the word "Blessed"). These are so important that they are said in almost every Divine Liturgy (regrettably, some churches have omitted them and substituted something else, greatly impoverishing their faithful). We definitely sing them!

For myself only, personally, the beatitudes that resonate most with me are:

Mat 5:4  Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Mat 5:7  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

The other ones are too high for me. I am not poor in spirit (humble), although I have been humbled. I do mourn constantly about my condition and the condition of man, although, as I read the Fathers, I have barely learned to mourn. I see the world mourning over foolish things, and things that lead to death. and this mourning brings no joy. Godly mourning brings joy, and I feel this deeply inside me, although I am still unable to mourn completely for my sins. I think mourning over our condition (our sins) makes us truly sane. there are many who do not mourn that appear ok, but by god's standards, they are insane, since they seek after the things that kill the soul. I remember a part of the book "Ordinary saints", where a young monk who was always sad was diagnosed as not mourning enough at night. I am trying to learn how to do that.

I have a saying: "If you cannot stop sinning, at least be kind". I think it is easier to be kind than be humble, or mourn, although these virtues certainly increase kindness.

The end of the beatitudes is "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." (Mat 5:12) that begs the question: what is our reward? I think we need to read the Gospels and pray, and live with effort to follow the commandments, and then we will acquire the remembrance of death. This is a great virtue - to be able to evaluate everything in life, and see if it is alive or dead. That which is according to god is alive. That which does not - pride, unbelief, envy, impurity, laziness, and all the passions - is dead and leads to death. In other words, we must work daily to understand what rewards we should be seeking. the rewards of the world are fleeting, and poisonous. they appear good , but are bad, whereas the rewards from God do not appear good to the carnal mind. therefore, we must be continually reshaping our mind. That is why we must read the Gospels and pray.

The beatitudes are the summit of theology, They form the beginning of the greatest, most theologically perfect sermon ever given. this is all I dare to say about them now. God helping me, I will write more about Matthew 5 next week.

Priest Seraphim Holland 2014     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

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[1] From the Menologion, for Oct 16/29, ©  2000  by translator Fr. S. Janos.

 

[2] From the Menologion, for Oct 17/30, ©  2000  by translator Fr. S. Janos.